A Toast To A Friend

If you’ve read my novella, Closing the Wound, then you know it is about the real events of the death of a teenage boy on Halloween night in 1995 here in South Carolina. Our friend, Chris, loved Halloween. It was his favorite day of the year. 

So, in honor of our friend, on Halloween, Cate and I will go visit his grave. We will take candy bars with us and we will toast his life and his love for Halloween, then we will eat the candy. It’s our way of paying tribute to a young man who died far too soon. It’s our way of remembering him. 

Cate and I went for coffee this evening and as we sat and drank our drinks at an awesome place in Cayce called Piecewise (it’s on State Street, down the road from B.C. High School if you want to pay them a visit), we talked about Chris and something we would like to do, or rather, something we would like you to do. At some point during the month of October, please take a couple of hours and visit the grave of a family member or a friend (or even a stranger). Take with you some candy, toast that person, talk about that person, eat your candy. 

So often when someone dies, we go to the funeral, maybe go to the burial, then … we forget about them. Life is too precious to forget someone that was a part of our lives. Instead of forgetting them, let them live on in our lives. Remember them by taking a moment, here in October, the month of Halloween, my friend’s favorite day of the year, and celebrate them. 

Yes, I am probably going to post this here and there and everywhere over the next few weeks as Halloween grows closer. Yes, you will also see more posts about Closing the Wound this month than before. I think his story is one that should be told, should be read. It was my way to cope with his death and a way for him to live on through the written word. 

Until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.

Happy Halloween.

A.J.

Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Book Reviews

Here on Type AJ Negative, I often talk about things other than my books and writing. I like to tell stories about life. I talk about things that mean something to me and that I hope can mean something to you. 

I deal in words and in the importance of using them to tell stories. Sometimes, however, other folks deal in words and say good things about my work. Though I have a page here dedicated to book reviews, what I want to do is start posting those reviews here on the main page. 

Is this a way for me to interest you in purchasing one of my books? Well, yes, it is. I have a saying: Bet on me. Bet on my writing. You won’t regret it. I hope you will consider purchasing one of my books, either from me directly (for print books and I will sign each one) or through Amazon for digital books. Also, if you’ve read one of my books, will you consider leaving a review if you haven’t already done so? Or, drop me a note here, on my page or at my email, 1horrorwithheart@gmail.com. I would love to hear from you.

The following are reviews that were recently left on some of my books. 

From Amazon, a review of Interrogations:

Interrogations CoverYet another emotionally charged, character driven story from the mind of A.J. Brown. This author writes characters that you feel you know and you worry about them. Hank Walker wakes up in a survivor camp that is not what it seems. The leader should not be in charge and Hank makes it his mission to let the other survivors realize this. Hank is going through changes and he knows he must leave. I won’t say more except you must read Brown’s books if you love amazing stories with down to earth characters.

From Dark Bites, a review of Closing the Wound:

Closing the Wound is a story about ghosts, both living and long since deceased. It’s a story about the type of scars which, while faded over time, remain a stark reminder of what’s been lost and what may never be fully understood. It acts as a brief history of sadness about a life cut far too short and the kind of questions which can only be answered by those no longer here.

coverClosing the Wound doesn’t come across so much as a coming of age story as it does a coming to terms story. The story clearly provides a cathartic path on which the author has set himself upon while simultaneously creating a outlet for honoring a childhood friend murdered on Halloween night several years past. This story seems to be for both the writer, and his lost friend and is sure to hit several emotional chords for readers along the way.

A.J. Brown recalls the painful memories of his past in the same vein as any classic ghost story best told around a campfire long after the kids have gone to sleep when scary monsters get to play with our conscience mind a while. Except, in this case, the monsters are as real as the story told and everything you’re about to read happened as recollected by the author in a bare-bones, journalistic style.

As much as this story of about 15,000 words was written as a method for healing, it’s hard not to relate with at least some of the author’s mournful experiences which speak volumes to anyone who’s ever lost something they cared deeply for at some point in their life. As the author warns up front, don’t expect a happy ending. Happy endings don’t often belong in the real world.

While Closing the Wound may leave readers with more questions than answers, I feel it will also imbed within its readers a sense that it’s okay to not understand everything we think we need to no matter how desperate that need may so often feel. If A.J.’s book has taught at least this reader anything, it’s to remember that while it seems ideal to find answers as a way of closure, it may be important to find a way to accept what little we’re willing and able to remember – and understand – of a painful experience from even the most haunting moments of our lives.

And with that I urge you to do yourself a favour and grab a copy of Closing the Wound for yourself and put aside a few hours of reflective reading. You’ll be glad you did because there’s a lot more where that came from.

Screen Shot 2019-01-01 at 4.52.16 PMFrom Amazon, a review of Zombie:

I love anthologies! Being busy, they give you a chance to actually finish a story in a short period of time. Zombie gives you 14 well written shorts with that A. J. Brown twist and emotional pull. I love that Hank and Humphrey, from Dredging Up Memories, make an appearance in Bonobo. I would have to say, French Dressing was my favorite. It’s great when a story can make you LOL. Thank you again, A. J., for another wonderful book.

From Amazon, a review of Dredging Up Memories:

A.J. Brown has done with his zombie apocalypse novel “Dredging Up Memories” what Shakespeare always strived to do with his plays and characters, to hold a mirror up to nature. Brown, in achieving this, has breathed new life into an often overdone premise. 1 DUM COVERMore often than not, the zombies in such horror novels are mindless drones that serve as nothing more than bullet cushions or slow-moving targets. Brown’s protagonist, Hank Walker, displays his human nature through trying time and time again in the novel to perceive or draw out some hint of human residue in the zombies he encounters. Who they were in life? He takes no pleasure in killing and apologizes to those he is forced to put down. He buries his dead. This, to me, is how I truly believe a good man would react to such a situation as a zombie apocalypse. He is a complex character and one worth following and sympathizing with throughout this powerful novel. Brown has written an intricately-crafted novel and his voice is authentic as it is familiar. We all know the people in Brown’s novel. And Hank Walker could be the guy on the barstool next to yours. I loved this book and didn’t want it to end. And when a book gives me this kind of charge and evokes this type of emotion, I want to read everything by that author. 12 ASOM CoverBrown is such an author. Great, great read!

From Amazon, a review of A Stitch of Madness

I’m 63 years old and I’ve been a horror fan all my life. It takes a LOT to creep me out, anymore. I can’t wait to read another book by this author. In the meantime, I’m going to read this one again.

From Amazon, a review of Beautiful Minds:

A.J. Brown truly has a beautiful mind. His way with words in these 61 stories captivates you as they remind of us what it is to be human, to have feelings and emotions. The stories pull you in as he takes true to life events that make you recall bits and pieces of your own life, with a twist. He makes you feel pain and sorrow, wonder and awe, and fear at what would happen if … At times you will laugh out loud as I did. He has a way with words that make you feel at times you are living within the story, feeling and seeing as the character(s) do. Do I have favorites in the book? Most definitely. Did I mark each on the contents page? I did, and I encourage other readers to do so. You will find, as I did, a row of stars which I will reread again, like other favorite books on my shelves. Thank you, A.J., for giving your audience another purely captivating book to treasure.

Screen Shot 2019-01-01 at 4.50.55 PM***

Well, that’s all for now. As always, thank you for spending your time with me. I hope we can build on this and I hope to hear from you in the future.

Until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

A Note About Closing The Wound

If you’ve read my book, Closing the Wound, then you know several things right off the bat. First, this story would not have happened if not for a friend calling me early one Saturday morning and asking this question: What happened that night? You also know I went and had breakfast with this friend and we talked for a long time while sitting at a Denny’s. You also know Closing the Wound is a true story, at least as true as my memory recalled it. 

coverIt had been a while since I had seen that friend. His name is Chad and we were (and still are, though we don’t see each other often enough) good friends.I ran into Chad at my daughter’s graduation. He was there for another student, but he got to see my girl walk across that stage, too. Afterwards, we talked, as friends tend to do. We said, ‘Hey, we need to keep in touch,’ as friends tend to do, though often they don’t. 

Before we went our separate ways, I told him about Closing the Wound and his part in the story. A couple of days later, he purchased the digital book. When he finished reading the story, he didn’t leave me a review. Instead, he sent me an email. After reading it, I asked him if I could share it with the world. With his permission, I give you Chad’s letter to me.

Dear Jeff,

It is just passed midnight and I read “Closing The Wound”.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading it from your perspective.  Like you, I have somewhat boxed those memories away to be opened only one time a year, Halloween.  The book itself is very well written, it’s what’s between the front and back (that) really mattered to me.  It did dredge up a lot of memories.  I am still a bit hazy on our conversation that day, I do recall us talking about that night just can’t quite piece it all together.  It has been 24 years ago and after reading the book, a lot of those forgotten details and memories have crept back into my mind, which is a good thing.  I never want to forget those days no matter how horrific they were at times.  Each piece is somewhat of a building block of who we have become. Back to the book, you have a gift Jeff, you are a master story teller and writer.  I do not use those terms lightly either.  When I was writing, I had a similar style, but I can’t focus long enough to eat a sandwich let alone write a book!   LOL!  You have always had that gift, you can say you’re a natural at it. 

 I know we haven’t kept in touch over the years and meeting at the graduation was very refreshing to say the least.  I like how you write in the book to not live in the past.  There are somethings that I have been apart of where I too, ask could I have done something differently to alter the outcome.  I suppose we can all agonize over those questions, but questions don’t change events concerning the past.  I have struggled with Chris’ death, well at least once a year, yes it still haunts me.  I know he was tormented and I understood his struggles to a degree.  I truly believe he is in Heaven and no longer has those feelings of loneliness, depression and the desire to belong.  I still see his face when he was with all of us.  He admired you so much because you were such a good friend to him.  Like me, you helped alter some of his life Jeff.  His life ended at a very young age, but perhaps that’s how it was meant to be.  We can ask questions of “what ifs”, but I remember the best days with him was when we were all together hanging out.  Those are the days that I remember the most.  Yes, I remember that picture of us at the rest area off of I-77 in between the snack machine bars.  I had so much fun back in those days! 

 I leave you with this my friend.  After reading the book, I couldn’t help but to go back 25 years ago and think how you have helped so many people.  I know you are a little rough around the edges but that’s ok, sometimes it takes course sandpaper to get the splinters off of some of us knuckleheads!  But seriously, as time rapidly marches forward and our own families grow before us, take stock in your life and the people you have influenced.  I know for me, my family may not be here if it weren’t for you.  God uses us in different ways and He used you and a number of others from that church to save me from myself.  I suppose some emotions have been awaken from 25 years ago, but I just remember how happy Chris was with us, in a way we were his family besides his aunt and sister.  This Halloween let’s start a tradition at go and visit him and remind ourselves of the good days. 

BoyThank you for all you have done for me Jeff!  You are and will always be one of my best friends. 

 Keep in touch buddy! 

 PS: Do you remember his sister’s name or know of her whereabouts? 

 Chad *********

After reading this, I sat back for a while, just staring at the words, not really thinking in clear thoughts, but in pictures. Pictures, like the first time I met Chris at a church work day; like the time I saw him at the South Carolina State Fair just weeks before his death; like the hundreds of teens in a standing room memorial service; like finding his grave for the first time after not visiting for so long; at learning my sister’s husband new Chris and has his own theories of what happened that night. All of them were snapshots into the memories that I—that we—dredged up.  

Chad said some nice things to me, but the one that keeps coming back is this: He admired you so much because you were such a good friend to him.  Like me, you helped alter some of his life …

I wish I would have done more, been a better friend (despite what Chad said, I always think I could have done more), knocked the block off the punk who influenced him in the direction that ultimately cost him his life. 

Here’s my questions to all of you: Do you know someone who might need someone to talk to? Do you know someone who might be heading down a path of destruction? Is there someone you care about who is doing something you think maybe he or she shouldn’t, but you are afraid to mention it because you think it will hurt their feelings?

Here’s one more question: Does saving a life mean more than hurting someone’s feelings to do so? 

The story of my friend, Chris, in Closing the Wound, is just the tip of the iceberg. The story goes so much deeper and cuts down to the bone when I think about his life and death. I honestly don’t know if there is more I could have done, and that brings me guilt from time to time. Even so, I did some good in his life, and clearly, in Chad’s life. 

Sometimes our guilt overrides everything else. It torments us to the point of forgetting all about the good in our life, the good we have done. Chad is one of those good things. He reminded me of that. Now, I remind you: think about someone you have helped in some way. How is their life better because of you? Yes, take credit for that in your heart. Say, I did something great for someone and I helped someone and that person is in a better place because of me. Don’t let guilt ruin you. 

Until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

If you would like to pick up a copy of Closing the Wound, you can find the digital version on Amazon, or you can get the print version directly from me (signed of course) by contacting me at 1horrorwithheart@gmail.com.

Closing the Wound

Some stories are harder to write than others. They take on a different meaning, a different feel. The emotional grind of killing off a character or breaking up a relationship between two lovers or two friends or even family members to further a story along, can be taxing on the writer. That grind amps up when the story is either based on real events or are the actual events themselves.

coverThat leads me to my first nonfiction book, Closing the Wound. The people in the book are not just characters, but were, at one point, living, breathing human beings and part of my life in one way or other. The events are not figments of my imagination, but the truth how I remember it. I say as I remember it because time has a way of distorting things. It can turn the eight inch bass a fisherman caught when he was twenty into a six foot marlin at the age of fifty-three. It can take the task of reeling that bass in, feeding it some line, pulling the rod back, reeling, reeling, reeling into an epic battle for survival between man and beast. Time has a way of sneaking up on us and blurring the edges of reality and fiction, sometimes to the point we don’t know which is fact and which is make believe.

When I sat down to write Closing the Wound, I was very careful about those facts and falsehoods. I recounted the events over and over how I remember them. I thought about the people, all of whom the names were changed, and the roles they played in this chapter of, not only my life, but theirs and the main topic of this story, a young boy—no, young man—who died far too soon, taken from this world by another person. I thought about how folks who know about these events might feel about them being rehashed so many years later. I thought about how some of the people are portrayed. 

I thought hard on just who is telling the story. And this was the sticking point for me. Everyone has their versions of events, from as close to factual as you can get to the downright outrageous. For me, these are the facts as I recall them. The key to this entire story is it is my recollection. I didn’t seek out anyone else in the telling of this story. I used the facts and my memory to tell it. If someone else wishes to tell this story in their own manner, from their own perspective, then have at it. But for me—and for you—this is my story. 

Before I go, I want to talk about the cover. It’s a rusty lock on an old door. It symbolizes that this story is over for me. I have closed the doors on it and have locked them. It symbolizes that there is nothing left to tell; I have poured my soul out and I can’t pour anymore.

I hope you will consider coming along with me on the journey to the end of this story. If you do, I hope you will consider leaving a review as well. Those things are important to us little guys.

If you would like to pick up a digital copy of Closing the Wound, you can do so by going here.

If you would like to pick up a physical copy of Closing the Wound, you do so by going here.

As always, thank you for reading, and until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

 

Bigger Than Us

Halloween has passed.  Yet again, I must wait another 364 days for my favorite day of the year.  Though I love Halloween, it has become a symbol of remembrance and sadness as well.

On Halloween night in 1995, a teenager in my hometown was murdered and set on fire.  He was a good friend of my (soon to be, but as of that moment, not yet) wife.  It was tragic.  I wrote about it here, on Type AJ Negative a couple years ago in a six part series I titled, Closing the Wound.  (Links will be provided at the end of this piece if you would like to read that series.)

Halloween 2013 brought the funeral of a giant of a man in my state, one who I knew and worked for.  I will not give his name, but if you live in South Carolina you probably know who he was.

I went to the funeral of Mr. G (Mr. Giant is what I will call him, Mr. G for short).  It was a packed house with overflow rooms with video feeds set up for those who couldn’t get inside the church’ sanctuary.  The service was nice, very organized and what memorial services tend to be.

However, the rector was a woman who gave a seven or eight minute message. It wasn’t your typical message of ‘get saved while you can,’ but more geared toward what Mr. G really was, what he was about.  I believe they could have taken the rest of the service away and have only her message and it still would have been an amazing memorial.  She was that good.

This woman said a couple things that stood out to me.  One of them I will write about later.  The other one, I want to share with you now.  I’m modifying it just a little, but keeping the content of what she said.

“Mr. G showed us what faith looks like when it is lived out in something bigger than ourselves.”

The rector clearly meant Mr. G’s faith in God and in doing what he thought was right.  I’ve thought and thought about this for the last day since hearing her words.  I think the words that have stuck with me here are ‘bigger than ourselves.’

As I’ve thought and thought and thought and thought some more, I’ve come to realize that life, in and of itself, is bigger than all of us.  Life–what it really, truly is–is so much bigger than the lives we lead.

We are mundane.  We go through the same tasks over and over, day in and day out.  Often times we don’t even try all that hard to accomplish what we want to, or to do what others may ask of us.  We waste so much time worrying about stuff that is out of our hands, out of our control.  We let a lot of our life slip by.

Are we truly living?  Are we truly enjoying the gift we have been given?

That’s up to you to decide.  For me, I can say no.  And that’s my fault.  Have I chased my dream of being a successful writer as hard as I should?  No.  Not even close.  Why is that?  Fear, most likely.  Fear of failure, but also fear of success (which I’ve stated in other posts).

But wait, there is something else.  It’s not just fear.  It’s laziness; it’s not wanting to do the extra work, beyond writing the stories.  Writers have to do more these days to get ahead.  They have to market their work and themselves.  They have to socialize and be accessible to fans and other writers.  They have to be giving of their time, something they feel is better spent writing.  It’s a lot of work, and a lazy writer won’t make it very far in this business.

But guess what, Dear Readers.  We writers have it all wrong.  You see, writing is just that: writing.  There’s nothing special about it.  Sure, a writer can put together a few words to make sentences sound nice, but we have it all wrong.  We’re even calling ourselves the wrong thing.

For years I have said I am not a writer.  I’ve meant it every time I have said it.  Let me repeat that:

I am not a writer.

I will never be a writer.  I am a story teller.  I’ve said it before, and will say it again.  I am a story teller.

As I’ve sat and thought about writing, I realized a huge chunk of the problem with the writing world is everyone is trying to be writers, but so few are trying to be story tellers.

Think about all the stories you heard growing up.  Think about the way they were told.  If they were told the way my grandfather told stories, then you had a picture painted for you.  You could feel the cold or heat of the day.  You could feel the stomach cramps if he said the character was sick.  You could smell a fire burning.  You could hear the whispers or yells, and you could see someone’s mannerisms and movements.  The story wasn’t just about getting from point A to point B.  For my grandfather, the story was about starting at point A, going to point B and ending up at point Z when all was said and done.

Sure, his stories had action, but when he told me one, he told it with a purpose.  There was always a reason to it.  There were always characters and scenery, no matter how short the story.  He made you feel his words.

My grandfather didn’t write the first story.  He wasn’t a writer.  He was a story teller.  I’ve always thought that he would have sold many, many books if he would have written even just one.

But he wasn’t a writer.  No, he wasn’t a writer at all.  (Though he did write a lot of sermons, but that’s for a different day.)  He was a story teller.

And this is what is bigger than we writers.  Story telling…story telling is so much bigger than any writer out there.

I’ve always said I’m a story teller, not a writer.  But I’ve been lazy about the business of writing—and it is a business, no matter which way you look at it.  I’ve been lazy about putting my work out there.  Sure, I have short story collections.  Sure, I have a zombie series.  Sure, I have well over 150 publications to my name.  But I have failed miserably about marketing my work, about letting people know, ‘hey, I’ve been published.’

What good is being published if you don’t advertise it?

Story telling is bigger than us, and we have to treat it as such.  It is bigger than the writer who pens the story.  Words are just words when they are written with no passion, with no fire.

Sadly, marketing is often bigger than us as well.  It has been for me.  But, really, that post is also for another day.

For now, I sit back and think about some of the great storytellers of the past, about the way they wrote the words that told the stories, about how when one of their books are read, you can see and feel and hear and touch and taste it.  That’s what I want to do.

I am not a writer.

I am a story teller.

Until we meet again, my friends…

***

As promised above, I will leave you with the links to Closing the Wound.

https://typeajnegative.wordpress.com/2011/10/26/closing-the-wound-part-i/

https://typeajnegative.wordpress.com/2011/10/27/closing-the-wound-part-ii/

https://typeajnegative.wordpress.com/2011/10/28/closing-the-wound-part-iii/

https://typeajnegative.wordpress.com/2011/10/29/closing-the-wound-part-iv/

https://typeajnegative.wordpress.com/2011/10/30/closing-the-wound-part-v/

https://typeajnegative.wordpress.com/2011/10/31/closing-the-wound-the-final-chapter/

Closing the Wound Part III

“I picked you up. Remember?” I asked Chad and took a bite off a piece of bacon.

“Yeah, I do.”

“I dropped you off at the front of the school like always and you went inside… and Chris walked up to the car.”

“He did?”

Oh yeah, he did…

The sun was out. It was nearing eight in the morning. I picked Chad up in a little blue Escort. Yeah, I was cool. We drove to Brookland Cayce High School, home to the fighting Bearcats.

[[Sidebar: Like most small towns in the South, football is a religion and it was/is no different here. Though, really, it’s been a long time since the football team did much of anything on the field. Truth be told, the B.C. football team has only had three winning seasons in the last sixteen years including abysmal 0-10 seasons in 2007 and 2009. Thankfully, other sports have done well over the years. I’m rambling, aren’t I? End Sidebar]]

I dropped Chad off and went to leave. I stopped before I got started. Chris stood across the street in front of a building that used to be an old bait and tackle shop. Next to it was the barber shop–long gone now. Later that bait and tackle would become a coffee shop called The Pavilion. It’s no longer there anymore.

Chris saw me and I reckon he knew I saw him. He moseyed across the street, met me at that super cool Escort. We exchanged pleasantries, though I think they were a little strained, much like two guys who had been in a fight over a girl would exchange them, both knowing that fight was stupid, but neither being able to take back what was said or done. Especially since the girl chose someone else. He had that sheepish, kid with his hand in the cookie jar look again.

“So, are you going tonight?” I asked.

He didn’t shrug. Not in the least. He said, “Yeah.”

“Good. I’ll call you around four and we’ll figure out what time I need to pick you up.”

“Okay.”

Then Chris did something I don’t think he ever did, not even on the day I first met him. He stuck out his hand as if we had made a deal and a handshake sealed it. I took his hand, shook it once, maybe twice and let it go.

“I’ll talk to you later,” I said.

He replied with, “Goodbye.”

Goodbye? I’ve thought a lot about that over the years. How many people still say goodbye? Not many I would think. They say, see yah, bye, later dude, tata for now, ciao, and a whole host of other things, but goodbye?

You say goodbye to someone you don’t plan on seeing again. You say goodbye to a lover you broke up with. You say goodbye to a crappy boss when you quit a job. You say goodbye to someone moving away. You say goodbye to someone who’s dying. You don’t say goodbye to someone you plan on seeing later that afternoon… unless you don’t plan on seeing them.

I watched as Chris walked away, his shoulders somewhat slumped, hands deep in his jean pockets. He crossed the street and who stood at the corner of the old building that was once a bait and tackle shop? Christopher and a couple other teens I never met. Chris disappeared down the street that ran along the building.

I never saw him again…

***

At four o’clock I called Chris’s aunt’s house from the job. No answer. Fifteen minutes later I did the same thing. Again, no answer.

Since I’m trying to be as honest as I can here, I’ll tell you I got aggravated. I called twice more before I left the shop at five. You guessed it. No one answered.

When I got home, I tried again. And again. And again. At quarter of six I gave up. It crossed my mind that he was out with the weasel boy–yeah, that’s how I thought of him: one rat faced punk with the beginnings of a moustache that could have been his filament whiskers for all I cared. My jaw clenched tight at the thought of being stood up for weasel boy.

I went on to the church, we did our Harvest Festival. Chris never showed up. Neither did his sister. Before we left for trick or treating, I tried calling Chris one more time from the church. You know by now what the result was of that phone call.

My future wife, her sister, my sister and myself piled into my car and we made our way to our first trick or treat stop. On the way we were passed by several fire trucks, their sirens blaring.

Catherine looked back after they passed and said, “I hope everyone’s okay.”

If that’s not something right out of a movie, then I don’t know what is.

***

[[~But I can still recall the sting of all the tears when he was gone.
They said he crashed and burned I know I’ll never learned why any boy could die so young.~]]

“How did you find out?” Chad asked from across the table. Our plates were gone by then and our drinks sat in front of us. My coffee had grown cold and I nursed a soda for all it was worth.

“I got a phone call the next day.”

“Really? From who?”

“Maurice Applegate.”

“Really?”

Yeah, really.

The day had been one of those so-so days where work came in spurts. Normally November was a busy month right up until the day before Thanksgiving, but on that day we all just kind of hung out and did what little work came in for us.

The phone rang and someone answered it. A moment later I had the receiver to my ear and there were few pleasantries in the conversation that ensued.

“Jeff, this is Maurice. I need to ask you a question.”

I didn’t speak right away. Maurice was a cop at the time. He’s since retired, but at the time he was as active as they came. Why did he need to call me? And why call me at work? He didn’t have my work number. Where did he get it from? Red flags waved in the landscape of my mind.

I spoke, but cautiously. “Sure, Maurice. What is it?”

“Have you seen Chris?”

“Chris?”

“Yes. Have you seen him recently?”

“I saw him yesterday morning at B.C.”

“Do you remember what time it was?”

“Before eight.”

“Did you talk to him?”

“Briefly.”

“Do you mind telling me what you talked about?”

Interrogation. That’s what happened. I was being interrogated and that could only mean something bad happened. I remembered how I felt the day before, when he shook my hand and said goodbye, you know something you never say to someone you plan on seeing again.

“I asked him if he wanted to come to the Harvest Festival. He said he would go and I told him I would call him and let him know what time I would pick him up.”

“Was he with anyone?”

The truth was no. He wasn’t. Not while we talked. But, was it the complete truth? Chris walked away and met up with a few people across the street, remember?

“He met some people across the street.”

“Was Christopher one of those people?”

Well, damn. What was I going to do? Mike was in cop mode and I had a feeling the questions were official business. Lying could be bad. Lying could be detrimental.

“Yeah.”

He paused with the questions. In my head I saw him jotting down notes on a little pad that sat within a black leather hard cover. I could see him with his head cocked to the side, pressing the phone against his ear while he wrote.

“I appreciate your time, Jeff. If you hear from him, can you give me a call?”

“Maurice,” I said. A sudden desperation swept over me. I knew something was wrong and a huge part of me knew it was the worst possible thing in the world. “What’s going on?”

“Jeff, I can’t go into that right now.”

“Maurice, please.”

He was a cop and he had a job to do. But, more than that, he knew my family. He and my mom went way back to when they were both single. He probably shouldn’t have told me anything. “There was a fire last night in Starmount. A body was found. We can’t determine if it was Chris or Christopher and we can’t find the other one.”

There’s more to the conversation, but really, that’s all the detail I need to go into. I don’t remember a good chunk of the rest of it, anyway.

I hung up the phone and sat down on a case of paper beneath the counter. I stared at the copier in front of me, its beige and white sticking out much brighter than ever. The floor stood out, the dimensions like stacked blocks. Voices echoed in my ears and somewhere off in the distance the phone rang again.

“Hey man, you okay?” I looked up. Eric the Red (as we called him) stood above me. He had a cigarette dangling from his mouth and his red goatee seemed to shine against his pale white face. His bald head glistened.

My face felt hot.

“I don’t know,” I said.

***

“Wow,” Chad said.

I looked at my watch. It wasn’t even nine-thirty yet, but it felt much later. I wondered if Catherine was awake and wondering where I went. I wondered if Chloe was awake. I wondered if I would even be awake if Chad hadn’t called me.

“What happened next?”

I shifted in the booth seat, putting my back to the wall and stretched one leg out on the cushion.

“We had church that night.”

***

The pastor was a good fellow, last name of Earls. He had been a chaplain in the military. Don’t ask me which branch–I couldn’t tell you if I wanted to. A couple years later he would preside over the wedding of me and my lovely bride, but that was still off in the future and troubles all their own would happen between those two points in time.

Pastor Earls gave me a call. I had been home only a couple minutes when the phone rang. I answered it and on the other end was Earls’ somehow very calm voice.

“Jeff,” he started, stopped, then picked back up again. “Is it possible for you to be at church a little earlier tonight? Something happened last night and I’d like to discuss it with a few folks before the service.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, then added, “This is about Chris, isn’t it?”

In my mind I could see him nodding, the pinched way his lips came together when he was in thought. I could also see sadness in his eyes. I heard it in his voice. “Yes,” he said, then it was his turn to add something. “I guess you’ve heard.”

“For the most part. Maurice called me at work.”

A deep sigh followed. “I just got off the phone with him as well.”

“Anything new?”

Silence can be so damn loud it says everything you could ever need to hear. It spanned the space between us. Another deep sigh followed. I wondered if Earls was struggling to stay composed.

“Well, they’ve confirmed the identity of the young man in the fire.”

He didn’t have to say who it was. I knew.

“So that means they’re looking for Christopher?”

“Yes.”

I squeezed the bridge of my nose. A headache was forming and I think it started somewhere in my chest with that confirmation.

“Does Steve know?”

“I don’t think so, but I’m going to tell him soon.”

“Don’t,” I said. “I’ll tell him.”

***

“You told Steve?”

I nodded, lips puckered. “Yeah. One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life.”

To be continued…

Closing the Wound Part II

I said earlier Chris was a good kid, but a follower. In the summer of 1995 he had met this other kid. His name was Chris as well, but for the sake of this story, we’ll call him Christopher. Okay? Good.

Christopher wasn’t really a leader or a follower. He was one of those middle of the pack kids who dabbled in drugs and liked to talk big, even though he was thin like a rail and looked like a damn weasel. He looked like he could be mean and controlling and Chris was just the person he needed to associate with, someone he could push around, someone he could control.

They became friends. Don’t ask me how. I don’t know. During the time period from late July to Halloween, Chris took a decided step backward. I think Chris knew better, but who was I? Just someone he knew from Church and Christopher wasn’t about church. Christopher was about Christopher.

Chris stopped coming to services and in the months that followed he went from a smiling, seemingly happy teen to a brooding, frowning, grump.

Talking to him did no good. It just pushed him further away and made him hang out with Christopher more. I know. I tried. Maybe he thought Christopher was the only person who ‘understood’ him. Maybe he felt like he ‘belonged’ while hanging out with Christopher. Maybe he was just trying to be friends with the new kid in town. Why not? It makes sense to me. Chris had been the new kid at once and I don’t think he ever felt fully accepted among his peers.

A couple weeks before Halloween, Chris came back to church. He brought Christopher with him. Could he have been trying to sway Christopher to a different path? Could he have realized something was terribly wrong with the way things had gone? I don’t know…

They were both dressed in jeans and t-shirts and their clothes weren’t clean. That really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but what it showed was significant. For Chris, it was a far cry from how he would normally dress for church. Or, really for anything. Sure, he wore jeans from time to time, but he always wore a nice shirt and occasionally a full on suit. He wanted to look his best for the girl of his dream, a former girlfriend who had dumped him long before he met Christopher. He also wanted to be accepted by those in the youth group and possibly by the adults at the church.

[[Sidebar: I can relate to the brooding personality–I am one.

I can also relate to the need to be understood. Maybe not necessarily accepted, but understood. I was once the new kid at a church where none of the other kids were like me. They all came from mostly well off families and they all spoke alike and their humor was different than mine and they were all… joyful. What a contrast for me, a brooding thinker by nature.

The need to be understood went so far as to one evening at the church I went to when I was a teen having the kids sit in front of the congregation and answer questions from the adults. It was daunting and most of us sat quietly.

I don’t remember the question that was asked of us, but I remember responding to it. After no one spoke up for a few seconds I finally did and what I said was that, as teens, we needed the adults to understand us. Not to just write us off as teenagers who don’t know anything. To understand that we are smart and that if we were given a chance by the adults that we could be counted on for more than showing up for the youth group and playing games.

At the time I was sweet on one of the girls there and the comments were aimed more at her father–who was not fond of me at all and with good reason–than anyone else. Sadly, the comments went over his head.

I can relate. I bet many of you can as well. End Sidebar]]

The two youths sat on the back pew and they reeked of what many of us thought was marijuana. But, there was something else. They smelled like crap and that’s not a metaphor or an analogy. They smelled like crap. Not to try to sound funny (or punny), but it raised one hell of a stink with several members of the congregation.

They were confronted by a few folks. I’m not sure those folks were in the right or the wrong, but I know Christopher was indignant to the whole affair, even smiling about it as if he did it on purpose, as if he meant to cause a ruckus among those holy rollers who spoke of God. Maybe Christopher was trying to make a point to Chris, that the church members didn’t care about people who weren’t like them, who didn’t dress nice and give their tithes and sing in the choir and… Hmmm… all the things that Chris had done. Maybe he wanted to show them to be hypocrites.

Maybe he succeeded.

Chris would only come back to the church once after that.

The day before Halloween fell on a Sunday, much like this year. I headed down to the Sunday School wing to do a head count while services were taking place. There were kids in children’s church and the nursery still was not accounted for. I did this every Sunday. Just the normal routine. I opened the door to head into the Children’s Wing and stopped.

Chris stood in the small breezeway between the two buildings. I closed the door and stood in front of him, a little shocked to see him there, especially after what had happened a couple weeks before. He was dressed nicely in clean jeans and a button down shirt. He had a tie on. He didn’t reek of dope or… well, you know. He looked sad, terribly sad.

“Hey, Chris,” I said.

He gave his hello and it was as if he were the kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. He looked down at his feet, then out toward the road, behind him to the Children’s Wing; anywhere but up at me. His hands were shoved as far as they would go into his front pockets. I think he wished they could have gone further and maybe taken the rest of him with them.

“How’s it going?” I asked.

A nod followed and then that shrug–that simple gesture of the shoulders that said he didn’t know just how things were going. He confirmed it with his answer. “I don’t know.” His voice was small. It cracked a little. He still didn’t look at me.

I looked passed him, beyond the steps and sidewalk behind him to the blue pick-up truck that belonged to Steve, who also served as the youth pastor. The road ran along that side of the church, ending at the main road that ran along the front. I scanned what little bit of area I could see. From where I stood it was about ten feet to where the sidewalk T-boned. If you went right, you headed toward the front of the church and the main road. If you hooked a left, you went toward the parking lot and the Fellowship Hall. I couldn’t see much more beyond the walls of the building and that blue pick-up.

With Chris standing there all sheepish acting, I wasn’t sure what was going on myself. Part of me wanted to step down the steps and look around the sides of the building. The other part of me–that cautious bastard who I normally toss aside like any other stupid male–said it would be wiser if I stayed put. For once in my life I listened to the cautious side.

“Where’s Christopher?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said and looked up at me. His eyes were the color of bruises, not that they were blackened by a punch, but more that shade because of exhaustion or maybe drugs. “I’m done with him.”

I couldn’t help but lift my eyebrows at this; maybe I cocked my head to the side. “You’re done with him?”

A nod. A shrug. “Yeah.”

“What’s that mean? ‘Yeah?'”

“I’m done with him. He’s into drugs and he scares me and I don’t want to be around him anymore.”

It was my turn to nod.

“I’m sorry,” he said. I believe he was sincere. It’s hard enough being an adult and saying you’re sorry, but being a teenager faced with the reality of things that you’ve done wrong… that’s tough.

“You’re sorry?”

“Yeah. I want to make things right. I want to apologize to everyone. I want to get right with God and with everyone here.”

[[Sidebar: This last part I had to think about a little. In my head I recall this conversation clearly. It was a Sunday morning and we were in the breezeway between the two buildings. That part is correct. However, I was wrong in my earlier recollection that it was the day before Halloween. The day before Halloween didn’t fall on a Sunday in 1995. It fell on a Monday. I called my wife at home as I sat and pondered this. She even said Halloween fell on a Monday that year.

Not satisfied with both her and I thinking the same thing, I looked it up, that’s right on the world wide spider’s web. I went to the Almanac and lo and behold, Halloween fell on a Tuesday that year. That would put the conversation Chris and I had on Sunday, the 29th of October.

It’s funny how trying to remember the past sometimes escapes you. The finer details have a way of fading out in the wash and leaving only the major part of the story to be told. It’s kind of like having a pair of socks and both of them go in the wash and then the dryer, but only one of them comes out when everything is said and done.

“You know we’re having the harvest festival on Halloween. It’ll give you a chance to talk to some people, you know? If you want to come, I can pick you up and bring you.”

“I don’t know. My sister might be here and if she is she’ll want to go trick or treating and–”

“We can bring her along, too. Then afterward we can take her trick or treating. I know I’m taking my sister and Catherine’s taking hers, so you guys are welcome to come along.”

I should have known by the slow nod, by the way he had that trapped look on his face, the one that said I have other plans that I don’t want to tell you about. I should have known. In hindsight, I guess I really wanted to believe he was done with the other Chris, that he wanted to make amends and get things right… to straighten his young life out. Maybe he did, but he hadn’t worked up the courage to tell Christopher yet.

“I tell you what, I’ll call you before I get off work and you let me know. If you want to go, then I’ll pick you up.”

“Okay.”

I find it interesting and sad that I don’t remember anything else of that day. I don’t recall if he went into the church or if he turned around and walked away. Did we go out to eat after church? Did he stick around long enough to make those amends he claimed to want to make? I have no clue. I’m willing to bet not many people remember things that don’t seem to matter at the time before a tragedy. Little things that are said or actions that are done are forgotten as soon as they have occurred.

The next thing I remember is Halloween morning.

To be continued…

Closing the Wound Part I

It’s almost Halloween–my favortie day of the year. Sixteen years ago on Halloween night I lost a young friend. So, in remembrance of him, I wrote this piece. It’s long and it will take several blogs to cover the entire story (at least what I wish to tell of it).

***

Take a deep breath.

That’s what I tell myself before talking about this–or in this case, writing about it.

Take a deep breath.

No matter how long it’s been it still bugs me, still bothers me. I guess you could say it haunts me a little.

So, I’ll take that deep breath, thank you very much and if I could drink, that breath would be on the rocks with something harder than strawberry Kool-aid. But, I don’t drink and that’s probably a good thing. I’d be one mean as hell drunk.

A few years ago, Meat Loaf sang a song titled Objects In the Rearview Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are. That’s a long winded title, isn’t it? Just for the record, the song was written by Jim Steinman and released in 1994 off the Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell album. I had to look that last part up for clarity’s sake. The song is kind of ironic in and of itself. The story I’m about to tell you is about a kid who died in 1995, the year after the song was released and the song… the song is so appropriate for such a story as this, where the past seems so much closer than it really is.

I’ve told this story a few times, but it keeps coming back and each time it does, I leave something out. Some of it is probably not important to the reader, but all of it is relevant to me, to those involved.

If you have a few moments, sit back and read on. If you’d like, grab your beverage of choice and come down this memory lane with me. Watch your step, though. The cobblestones are a little loose and there seems to be more dirt on this road than there ever was before.

Catherine and I had been married nearly five years and Chloe, my little girl, was almost two. It was the beginning of February and the world wasn’t as cold outside as it should have been. We had just closed on our house the day before and spent our first night there. Our mattress lay on the floor in the living room, boxes all around us. It felt good to have our own home, but it was exhausting. On that night I slept—and slept well—which was something of a rarity back then.

The phone rang. I opened both eyes and lifted my head. The alarm clock sat on the floor, its bright red digital display telling me it was barely after eight o’clock. I thought the clock was laughing at me. If it weren’t maybe the phone was. Maybe it was all in my head. I didn’t care. All I knew is that the phone was ringing and there was no answering machine set up at the time and there was a one year old that I wanted to keep asleep for a little while longer.

I crawled from the bed—literally–and found the phone. It was a green hand held and it lit up every time it rang. I’m not sure, but I think I gave a weak ‘hello.’

The voice on the other end sounded tired. “Are you awake?” he asked.

It was Chad, a good friend, younger by a few years.

His teenage years weren’t what most folks would care to recall later on in life. Some of it may even have been a haze, brought on by anti-depressants and maybe a substance or two that didn’t quite mesh with those meds. Chad had always been like a little brother to me, one troubled by the world and people around him. But, he was a good person, had a good heart and life had changed for him–in very much a positive way.

“I am now,” I said. I’m sure I didn’t sound like Mary Poppins, all cheerful and singing about Supercalifragi… whatever that song is. I probably sounded more like the Grinch with his heart two sizes too small.

“Sorry, man, but I’ve been up all night.”

“So, you decided to call me and wake me up?”

Understand something: I’ve never been a good sleeper. I considered four hours a good night for me, but often, like 28 out of 30 days, sleep didn’t make it to four hours. I had been sleeping well and I’m somewhat of a bear when I get woke up prematurely.

“You’re the only one I know who can answer my questions,” he said.

Great. A question and answer session. Again, the Grinch in me had come along when I woke.

I sat down in one of the kitchen chairs, pushed aside a few boxes and placed my elbows on the table. I rubbed my eyes with one hand. “What questions, Chad?”

“What happened that night?”

This could have drawn my normal sarcasm. A little more specific please? Are you talking about the night Catherine and I got married? I hope you would know what happened that night. Which night? Last night? We moved into our house. Which night, dude?

No sarcasm came. Just a simple, “When?”

I wasn’t prepared for his answer.

“You know, the night Chris died.”

Talk about a gut shot. If I hadn’t been fully awake before, I was then. Those groggy, sleep induced cobwebs faded quick, as if they were never there to start with. It had been a couple years since I had talked about Chris, about his death. And in that moment it all came rushing back, kind of like those objects in the rearview mirror. Try passing a few cars out on the interstate and then slam on the breaks. Watch how fast those cars catch up to you. That’s what it was like, slamming on the breaks and watching…

[[~There are times I think I see him peeling out of the dark
I think he’s right behind me now and he’s gaining ground~]]

“You know what happened, Chad,” I said. I’m not going to lie. I wanted to avoid the subject.

“Jeff, I was on meds during that time period. Things are fuzzy. I don’t remember a lot of what happened.” He paused, then added, “Did I go to his funeral?”

“No.”

He had chosen not to go, not to be part of the circus of teens that may or may not have been Chris’s friends. He chose to mourn in his own way, even though Chris had been his friend, even though some others thought he was being selfish.

I heard the deep sigh through the phone.

“Meet me at Denny’s and we’ll talk,” I said.

A half hour later I sat in a booth across from a very tired looking Chad. His eyes held the type of sadness in them that I remember seeing when he was in his teens. We ordered coffee and some breakfast. I think we downed more coffee than we ate.

“I don’t remember anything,” he said. “What happened?”

Deep breaths. In and out.

I closed my eyes, rubbed the bridge of my nose and looked across the table at him.

***

Chris and Chad had one thing very much in common. Both of them lived with someone other than their parents, whether by their choice or their parents’ choice doesn’t matter. The fact is, they were kids whose struggles began when the parents didn’t seem to want them.

Chad lived with his grandfather, Chris with his aunt.

They had a bond, though at the time I don’t think either of them realized it.

The difference between the two of them is Chad was more of a loner. He had no issues with being alone and living inside his head. Chad could stand on his own two feet. Chris, on the other hand, wanted to be more popular. I hate saying this, but it’s pretty much the truth: Chris was a follower. Plain and simple. I think that trait, among other things, had a direct link to his death.

***

[[~The skies were pure and the fields were green,
and the sun was brighter than it’s ever been…~]]

I met Chris at church one Saturday. It was a church workday. Another man, Steve, and I were stripping the carpet off the front porch of the church. It was that indoor/outdoor stuff that so many people put on their porches back in the nineties and it was a real pain to get off. Chris walked up and asked if he could help. He had this goofy smile on his face, his hands tucked into his pockets.

“Sure,” one of us said and a friendship was born. That simple. He helped us that day with quite a few things and then in the coming couple years he constantly hung around, trying to play practical jokes or making smart remarks to us. He always seemed to get the worst end of those jokes.

There was this one time when Chris tried to play a joke on us. He was proud of himself. I don’t remember what the joke was, but Steve and I decided to up the ante a little. We went to a store called Spencers. It sat in the mall and they were one of those novelty type businesses. You know, the ones with the shot glasses, cheesy costumes, sex games and naughty cards and racy t-shirts. They also had gag gifts and we were there for one of those. We purchased a pack of chewing gum that turned your mouth blue.

The next morning, I opened a pack of gum, took out the stick and popped it into my mouth. Carefully, I wrapped a piece of the blue gum in the foil and slid it back into the sleeve the other piece came out of. Chris had a habit of asking me for gum and on that Sunday morning, he did just that. I slid the gag gum out and handed it to him. I also told him not to chew it until after we were done with the choir and ushering. See, I tried to show some sort of responsibility.

The boy didn’t listen all that well sometimes.

He popped that stick in his mouth just before we walked down the center aisle and picked up the offering plates. He chewed it all the way down and through the prayer. Chris looked at me, picked up the offering plate and smiled.

Uh oh…

His lips and gums were purple and his teeth were the color of Smurfs.

I turned away from him, doing my best to stifle laughter. When we finished we took the plates into the counting room. He had this confused look on his face.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

He gave a shrug–the way only Chris could–and shook his head slightly. “Several people were laughing out there.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I wonder what’s so funny.”

I said nothing and walked out of the room, barely containing the giggles. After the service he popped into the bathroom. A scream came from behind the door. When he came out, his face was as dark red as his teeth were blue.

We had a good laugh over that one. Even Chris laughed once he realized what had happened.

“I’ll get you guys for this.”

He tried, but looking back, I don’t think he ever succeeded.

***

I had to answer Chad’s question, but I wasn’t sure what to say. I simply said in that crass way I’ve been known for, “He died.”

It wasn’t the answer Chad wanted and I could see it on his face; the way he frowned; the way he ran his fork over the tops of his pancakes without so much as actually cutting through them.

I relented.

“You really want to know what happened?”

[[Sidebar: Why do folks asks that question? Do you really want to know? Yes, people want to know what happened, even if they are only mildly curious. It’s been proven time and time again, especially in this day and age of the internet and all the bagillions of things out there on the World Wide Web (which I think is an appropriate name for it. The internet is like a spider’s web and how often do people get tangled up with misinformation they found on it? Damn spiders…). If you go to Yahoo’s homepage off to the right is the most popular searches and in the center of the page is what’s hot now.

People want to know about the stupidest things. Did you hear about the rabbit that bit the nipple off of a man? No? Look it up on the internet and its all there. You want to know who the losing pitcher was in game two of the World Series of 1922, look it up on the web and you’ll get thousands of responses. (For the record, that was a trick question. Game 2 of the 1922 World Series between the Giants and Yankees was suspended with the score tied at three. Why? Darkness. There was no losing or winning pitcher in that game.)

You get the picture and I have rambled away from my story. I’m sorry. I do that sometimes. End Sidebar]]

Chad simply said, “Yes,” to my question.

I stared at him for a long time as the memories trudged themselves out of the closets and boxes and bags I had stored them away in. A few of them came down from the attic while others hobbled up from the basement, pulling themselves along splintered rails until the reached the top. They dusted themselves off and made their way across the labyrinth that is the warehouse of remembrance inside my head. One by one they appeared, said hey and took a seat in chairs that weren’t there seconds earlier. Each one was there to give their voice to a story I don’t completely know the entire truth to.

“Okay,” I said and so I told the story the best I could.

To be continued…